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Results 1 - 25 of 249
1. Review of Inside Biosphere 2

carson_inside biosphere 2Inside Biosphere 2: Earth Science Under Glass 
[Scientists in the Field]
by Mary Kay Carson; 
photos by Tom Uhlman
Middle School   Houghton   80 pp.
10/15   978-0-544-41664-2   $18.99

Carson takes readers into Biosphere 2, the research facility designed to be a self-sustaining model of Earth’s environments. There’s brief coverage of the innovative engineering and original mission of the facility (complete with photos of the first jumpsuit-clad human “biospherians” who were sealed inside from 1991 to 1993), but the focus is primarily on current research under the direction of scientists at the University of Arizona. The ability to control environmental conditions within the contained rainforest, ocean, and giant soil laboratory allows researchers to investigate questions in earth science — prominently, those related to climate change — on a scale not possible in any other laboratory setting. Biogeochemist Joost van Haren has tinkered with the composition of the rainforest’s atmosphere for twenty years, examining the effects of excess carbon dioxide on the contained atmosphere, soil, and biomass. Hydrologist Luke Pangle built a huge artificial slope to study soil production and erosion. Sustainability coordinator Nate Allen researches the facility itself, examining how this “Model City” can reduce its energy footprint. Educational efforts at Biosphere 2 are also profiled, as the ocean biome is repurposed as a teaching and research lab. Plentiful photos of the researchers, facility, and surrounding environment capture the feel of a busy research center and show the nuts and bolts of maintaining controlled conditions. Uhlman’s photographs take us into back rooms and basements to see the wires, computers, pumps, and pipes that keep the place running. A glossary, index, references (including citations to the research papers produced by Biosphere 2 scientists), and places to read about the original project are appended.

From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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2. Review of Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish

deutsch_hereville how mirka caught a fishstar2 Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish
by Barry Deutsch; illus. by the author; backgrounds by Adrian Wallace; 
colors by Jake Richmond
Middle School   Amulet/Abrams   141 pp.
11/15   978-1-4197-0800-8   $17.95

Mirka is stuck babysitting her pesky six-year-old half-sister Layele while the rest of the family is away from their all-Hasidic community. Fruma, Mirka’s stepmother, leaves strict orders to stay out of the woods, where bizarre magic always seems to happen (Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, rev. 11/10; Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite, rev. 11/12) and where Fruma saw “things” when she was Mirka’s age. Of course, Mirka does go into the woods, dragging Layele with her, and before long she’s wheedled the troll from the first book out of a hair elastic with time-travel capabilities (the illustrations denote the time travelers by superimposing them onto the landscape in transparent purple and white). The girls encounter a wishing fish, the same one who lost a battle of wits with a young Fruma (then called Fran and dressed in modern garb) and who now has a wicked plan to gain power by controlling and kidnapping Layele. Though the expressive and often humorous illustrations in this graphic novel do much to convey each scene’s tone and highlight important characters and objects, words make the world go ’round here. (Check out Mirka’s punctuation-marked skirt!) Speech bubbles wind in and out of the variably sized panels, and the eventual solution involves verbal gymnastics as much as heroics and compassion.

From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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3. The Thing About Jellyfish

The Thing Aboutu JellyfishThrough NetGalley, I had the opportunity to read The Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin, a middle grade book that will debut mid-September 2015. In this book, Suzy Swanson processes the death of her old friend Franny and the end of a friendship. She grieves the way that she and Franny grew apart before Franny drowned. Suzy’s way of making sense of this loss is to fixate on jellyfish: she reads about them and believes that Franny must have drowned after being stung by a jellyfish because otherwise Franny’s death makes no sense.

When I worked in children’s publishing many years ago, I remember that we had specific educational books and then we had fiction. Years after I left that industry, I learned that even fiction books need some kind of educational component in order to sell them to the school and library market…I say that to say that this book has a lot of educational material. The author really packs in the scientific info and uses a science teacher’s explanation of the scientific method to introduce each chapter. This is not a bad thing but it is noticeable. When you choose fiction do you consider its academic as well as its storytelling merits?

At the end of the book, the author explained how the book began with the copious research she did for a different project that was rejected. She repurposed that research to create Suzy, a character who finds subjects she is passionate about but misses the social cues that would tell her when others may not be quite a interested as she is.

As a reader, I came to feel a lot of compassion for Suzy because she is so lost. The first half of the book alternates between the present and Suzy slowly narrating just how she and Franny went from young BFFs to sitting at separate lunch tables and no longer hanging out in middle school. As a parent, the book is a reminder of a child’s rich inner life: you just can’t know all your child is going through. Suzy’s well-meaning parents put her in therapy and try their best but they aren’t really reaching her.

The tone of the book changes when Suzy decides to embark on a trip to see the one person she thinks will understand her interest in jellyfish. While I’m not one who believes that every wring must be severely punished, I was surprised at the lack of consequences in this book. Suzy steals significant amounts of money from family members but I guess they feel that she has been through enough so they don’t address the theft in a punitive way.

Towards the end of the book Suzy finally reveals her rather disturbing actions that may have done away with any chance that Franny would reach out to her again. Suzy is never found out and doesn’t get to speak to Franny again before Franny dies but clearly Suzy feels a lot of guilt, which can be its own punishment.

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4. Five questions for Tim Wynne-Jones

Tim_Wynne-JonesAt the start of Tim Wynne-Jones’s The Emperor of Any Place (Candlewick, 14 years and up), Evan, reeling from the death of his single father, has no choice but to contact his paternal grandfather, Griff — whom Evan’s dad called a murderer. A gripping story-within-the-story unfolds about a WWII Japanese soldier stranded on a haunted island. How Wynne-Jones weaves these strands together is elegant, surprising, and exhilarating.

1. How much did you know about WWII Japan and Japanese folklore before writing this book?

TWJ: Very little! I’ve had the good fortune to travel in Japan, and loved it, but I cannot claim any particular prior knowledge of Japanese culture or folklore. For years I had wanted to write a World War II book to honor my father, whose experience of the war in Europe scarred him. What we would call PTSD now, but which he did not acknowledge as more than “shell shock,” haunted him and had an effect on us, his children. War does that: spirals down the years and decades, affecting generations. Whenever I tried to write myself into the war, so to speak, I found it impossible, and only after a great deal of time did I come to the realization that the European war was my father’s war. Which left me with the “Other War,” in the Pacific Theater, the one I knew next to nothing about. That gave me the freedom to research deeply, to dig and imagine and finally find a corner of the war that I could inhabit, fictionally.

As I was getting to know Isamu Oshiro, I realized he would have grown up with the folklore of his people just as I have grown up with the folklore of mine. And as soon as I started reading up on that, I knew it would be an integral part of Kokoro-Jima. I have played with the idea of the jikininki, giving them a unique back-story. This is what Bram Stoker did with Dracula: take an existing folktale and breathe new life into it. It has happened down the ages and was one of my favorite parts of writing this book.

2. Did you write the different threads of the story one at a time or were you working on them all at once?

TWJ: Oh, the threads. The threads were a complete schmozzle! There were so many threads — far more than made the final cut. At one point I had thirteen point-of-view characters all clamoring to tell their stories. “Me, me!,” they shouted until my head hurt. What really came first was the story-within-the-story, that of Isamu’s adventures on the island of ghosts and monsters. Then there was the very lengthy task of finding out who else was going to make their way to that mysterious place and how it would all play out and how those people were related to the contemporary characters. I drew a whole lot of family trees!

wynne-jones_emperor of any place3. Did you make Griff up? Or is he based on someone you know?

TWJ: Griff grew out of my research and wide reading about the war, but with aspects of various people I’ve met, including my father. War shapes a man, whether he wants it to or not. A lifetime of fighting wars has shaped Griff. There was a whole novella-length part of the book that I eventually took out, about when Griff was a young man, Evan’s age, stationed in Iceland, before he was shipped over to the Pacific after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was, among other things, a love story. He alludes to that in the novel, but originally I had the whole story as part of this book. That was when the novel was over six hundred pages long and…well, something had to go. But I’m so glad I wrote his story. It really helped me to get to know him and see that he wasn’t always like he is now. Once he was young and in love, with his whole life before him.

4. This book is: realistic family story; fantasy; mystery; ghost story; historical fiction; war story; contemporary fiction; story-within-a-story; and more. How’d you make that all work?

TWJ: Phew! Put that way, I’m not sure! It took a long time, I’ll say that much. I usually spend a year or so writing a novel. This one took more than three and a half years. There were so many parts of the story I wanted to tell, and I juggled all that in such a way that there were many, many versions. Gradually, the stories that needed to be there stayed and the other parts fell away. Along with the Griff novella, there was another whole novella telling us Hisako’s story as she lived through the invasion of Sampei. I think it was only when Evan rose to the top as my central character that I knew what I could include and what had to go, no matter how interesting it was to me in and of itself. This is, in the end, Isamu’s and Evan’s book, and there is nothing in it now that doesn’t shore up their stories and, hopefully, weave them together: the Emperor of Kokoro-Jima and the Emperor of Any Place.

5. Do you believe in the afterlife? (Or the beforelife, in this case?)

TWJ: Do you want the long answer, the short answer, or the truth? The afterlife has been a part of human culture — the Human Mind — for so many millennia it’s not something one can simply dismiss. I don’t believe in heaven as a place, per se, so much as a deeply rooted concept, but I do believe that the idea operates on us and through us while we are alive. So in a way it does exist as we live in a world with this unanswered and persuasive question hanging over our heads. It was only after a long time of writing this novel that I came up with the idea of preincarnation, and I loved the poetry of it. I quickly learned that there are other definitions of this word out there, but my own definition and its appearance on Kokoko-Jima captivated my imagination. I love the idea that there was — is — this magical island in the largest of our oceans where the future waits in ethereal form and recognizes us for who we are, if we happen to wash up on the shore there. I suppose that even if heaven is only a metaphor, it’s a particularly powerful one. And I take metaphors very seriously. A metaphor is how we describe something we have no description for. Sounds like heaven to me!

From the November 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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5. Boys to remember

Four novels featuring teenage boys — in both contemporary and historical settings — take on big issues, with memorable results.

reynolds_all american boysAll American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely is a ripped-from-the-headlines story written with nuance, sharp humor, and devastating honesty. When a quick stop at the corner store suddenly escalates into a terrifying scene of police brutality, two high school classmates are linked and altered by the violence — Rashad (who is African American) as its victim; Quinn (who is white) as its witness. The authors have brought together issues of racism, power, and justice with a diverse cast of characters and two remarkable protagonists forced to grapple with the layered complexities of growing up in racially tense America. (Atheneum/Dlouhy, 14 years and up)

leavitt_calvinThe seventeen-year-old star of Calvin by Martine Leavitt believes that his life is inextricably linked to the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes — a belief reinforced by the constant presence of the voice of tiger Hobbes in his consciousness. Recently diagnosed with schizophrenia, he’s convinced that if he can persuade the famously reclusive cartoonist Bill Watterson to draw a final cartoon of a teenage Calvin without Hobbes, he himself will be cured. On a pilgrimage to find Watterson, Calvin sets off across frozen Lake Erie, accompanied by old flame/current frenemy Susie. Along the way, Calvin and Susie examine — sweetly and humorously — their relationship and ponder the big existential questions of life. (Farrar/Ferguson, 14 years and up)

quintero_show and proveIn the summer of 1983, best friends — and alternating narrators in Sofia Quintero’s Show and Prove — Raymond “Smiles” King and Guillermo “Nike” Vega are working as camp counselors at a summer enrichment program in their South Bronx neighborhood. Smiles is crushed when he loses out on a promotion to senior counselor; Nike thinks that winning a break-dancing competition will impress his crush. As the summer goes on, neighborhood tensions and secrets are revealed, from the camp’s budget concerns to racial and religious conflicts among black Caribbeans, Puerto Ricans, and Palestinians. The novel features two vibrant, fully realized narrators with complex lives, a memorable supporting cast, and a complete immersion in the zeitgeist of the eighties, from music to politics. (Knopf, 14 years and up)

schmidt_orbiting jupiterIn Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, sixth-grader Jack’s family fosters a fourteen-year-old boy with a troubled past. Joseph attacked a teacher, was subsequently incarcerated at a juvenile detention center, and has a baby daughter whom he’s never seen. Jack and his parents gradually peel away Joseph’s protective veneer, but the teen’s single-minded desire to parent his daughter — and then the arrival of Joseph’s violent father — leads to strife. The book’s ending is bittersweet but as satisfying as a two-box-of-tissues tearjerker can possibly be. (Clarion, 11–14 years)

From the November 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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6. Don Brown on Drowned City

brown_drowned cityIn our September/October issue, reviewer Betty Carter asked Don Brown, author/illustrator of nonfiction graphic novel Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, about what we can learn from the events of Hurricane Katrina. Read the full starred review of Drowned City here.

Betty Carter: So many of your books cover a pivotal moment in American history. What do you believe is the most important takeaway from Hurricane Katrina for our country as a whole?

Don Brown: Hurricane Katrina presented America with two questions that have not yet been fully answered: Why did all levels of government fail the most vulnerable citizens of New Orleans, and what part did class and race play in that failure?

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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7. Review of Drowned City

brown_drowned citystar2 Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans
by Don Brown; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School   Houghton   96 pp.
8/15   978-0-544-15777-4   $18.99

To date, the majority of children’s and young adult books about Hurricane Katrina are microcosmic stories or accounts of a single person or family. Here, in powerful comic-book format, Brown delivers the full force of the storm and its impact on the city as a whole. Beginning with Katrina’s inception as just a breeze in Africa, he traces its path across the Atlantic and into the Gulf of Mexico. Evacuation procedures in New Orleans, both successful (eighty percent of the residents left) and unsuccessful (promised buses for the poor never arrived), are outlined in chilling detail as readers see residents gridlocked in traffic and also see the resignation of those remaining. When the storm hits New Orleans, Brown hits readers with the consequences: flooding, fear, frustration, desperation, and death. He follows with the overwhelming numbers: broken levees releasing one million gallons of water a minute; twenty-five thousand people taking refuge in the Superdome (and fifteen thousand in the convention center) without adequate food, water, or toilets; ten thousand rescues by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and 33,500 rescues by the Coast Guard; plus floodwaters teeming with snakes, refuse, oil, and dead bodies. Hovering above all is the lack of coordinated help from myriad governmental agencies. Captioned with meticulously documented facts and quotes from victims, the art records these events, as it portrays people being saved or drowning, or a baby hoisted in the air above the rising waters, its fate unknown. While commanding, these images are not sensationalized. If a book’s power were measured like a storm’s, this would be a category five. Appended with source notes and a bibliography.

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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8. Review of The Hired Girl

hiredgirl_210x300star2 The Hired Girl
by Laura Amy Schlitz
Middle School   Candlewick   392 pp.
9/15   978-0-7636-7818-0   $17.99
e-book ed. 978-0-7636-7943-9   $17.99

In 1911, spirited fourteen-year-old Joan, the only girl in a family of three boys plus a verbally abusive father (her weak-of-constitution mother has died), musters her courage and leaves her rural Pennsylvania home for Baltimore, the final straw being her father’s burning of her few precious books. Once in the city, and with no real plan for survival, Joan is fortunate to be taken in by a kindly, well-to-do Jewish family, the Rosenbachs. She’s employed as their “hired girl,” acting as assistant to longtime (and grumpy) domestic Malka and serving as the observant family’s “Shabbos goy,” performing household tasks forbidden to Jews during the Sabbath. Over the course of the story, Joan, wide-eyed and open-hearted: meddles in the eldest Rosenbach son’s love affairs (luckily, it all works out); very ill-advisedly attempts to convert the family’s young grandson to Catholicism; makes something of an enemy of the lady of the house; and falls helplessly in love with the Rosenbachs’ younger son, an artist who persuades her to pose for him…as Joan of Arc. The book is framed as Joan’s diary, and her weaknesses, foibles, and naiveté come through as clearly — and as frequently — as her hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The pacing can be a little slow (she doesn’t even get to Baltimore, where the bulk of the story takes place, until almost eighty pages in), but by the end readers feel as if they’ve witnessed the real, authentic growth of a memorable young woman.

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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9. Review of The Trouble in Me

gantos_trouble in me_170x256The Trouble in Me
by Jack Gantos
Middle School, High School   Farrar   208 pp.
9/15   978-0-374-37995-7   $17.99   g

By the summer before eighth grade, young Jack Gantos didn’t think much of himself. He had the “milky physique of a very soft boy” and looked like a “boneless squid.” His “mouth bully” of a father called him “ass-wipe,” “shithead,” and “brain-dead.” About to start at his sixth school in eight grades, he had no friends, and girls paid him no mind. He was a “drifty kid who was lost at sea…easily led off course.” Bored with his own life, he tried to be somebody else and fell into the orbit of juvenile delinquent neighbor Gary Pagoda. Suddenly, he felt alive doing stupid stuff with Gary — diving into a pool of flames; being catapulted from a tree, over a house, and into a swimming pool; roller-skating down a sheet-metal slide through a hula-hoop ring of fire. Gary was Peter Pan; Jack, his shadow. Jack could feel Gary molding him into “an Adam or a golem or some magical creature that had once been a handful of dirt but was now under his spell.” Gantos effectively narrates his own story in this memoir, reviewing portions of his life to identify the character flaw that led him to abandon his “better self” in favor of later becoming a drug smuggler who ended up in a federal penitentiary. As explained in the afterword, this volume acts as a preface to Hole in My Life (rev. 5/02), and readers who read both will experience the full arc of Jack’s wild behavior, severe consequences, and, ultimately, redemption.

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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10. Really scary middle grade

Horrifying Hymenoptera, frightening faeries, malicious magick, and creepy corpses come out to play in these chilling middle-grade novels.

oppel_nestSteve’s baby brother comes back from the hospital sick (“there was something wrong with his heart and his eyes and his brain”) and needing lots of care, so his parents don’t pay much attention when Steve develops a fear of the wasps in the backyard. The boy finds comfort in a recurring dream in which a compassionate voice offers to make everything better: all Steve must do is say yes, and his dream confidante will turn her promise of a healthy baby into reality. In his (terrifying!) book The Nest, Kenneth Oppel’s language is straightforward, but the emotional resonance is deep. Jon Klassen‘s full-page black-and-white drawings — simple, but with maximum impact, in shades of light, dark, and darker — astutely capture the magnitude of a child’s imagination when he can rely only upon himself. (Simon, 10–12 years)

hahn_tookIn Mary Downing Hahn‘s Took, Daniel’s family abruptly leaves Connecticut for a simpler lifestyle in West Virginia after Daniel’s father loses his job. Daniel and his little sister, Erica, find their new dilapidated home and the woods that surround it frightening, and the kids at school tease them with scary tales of a strange old woman, a man-eating razorback hog, and a little girl who disappeared from their house fifty years before. Daniel does not believe these stories, but Erica becomes progressively stranger, withdrawing from her family and obsessing over her look-alike doll, Little Erica. Told alternatingly through Daniel’s first-person narration and a third-person omniscient narrator, the story spookily — and effectively — weaves in the oral tradition of folklore, legends, and ghost stories. (Clarion, 10–12 years)

smith_hoodooHoodoo by Ronald L. Smith is a creepy Southern Gothic ghost story focused on the insular 1930s black community of Sardis, Alabama. Folks there believe in equal measure in their God and in folk magick (or “hoodoo”). Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher doesn’t have a speck of magick in him—or so he thinks. When a Stranger, a nasty, foul-smelling incarnation of evil, comes to town Hoodoo discovers the magick deep within himself and the strength and heart to summon it. Filled with folk and religious symbols, the story is steeped in time and place. Hoodoo’s earnest first-person narrative reveals a believable innocent who can “cause deeds great and powerful.” (Clarion, 10–12 years)

trevayne_accidental afterlife of thomas marsdenWhile out grave-robbing one night, Thomas Marsden — star of The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden — digs up a corpse that looks exactly like him. In his hand the dead boy is holding tickets to a performance by the famous spiritualist Mordecai, along with a note bearing the instruction Speak to no one. As it turns out, Thomas is of faerie descent, and his people have been enslaved by Mordecai. As the last surviving member of the royal line, it’s up to Thomas to break Mordecai’s enchantment. Author Emma Trevayne plays her cards close to the vest, slowly doling out clues; the central drama — Thomas’s decision whether to help the faeries despite having been rejected by them at birth — makes it worth the wait. By the end, the boy’s humanity holds the key to the faeries’ salvation, leading to a satisfying resolution. (Simon, 10–12 years)

From the October 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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11. Pick your poison

A chilling short story collection, two suspenseful novels, and one book that’s a bit of both: there’s something here for every young adult horror fan.

tucholke_slasher girls & monster boysEach of the fourteen short tales of horror in Slasher Girls & Monster Boys, selected by April Genevieve Tucholke, is inspired by at least one other story, film, or song: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Hitchcock movies, Carrie, Zombieland, etc. With such eclectic antecedents, a wide range of approaches to the theme, and settings that span time and cultures, the resulting collection is satisfyingly diverse and compelling. After encountering the horrors here, variously supernatural and disturbingly human, readers may want to leave the lights on. (Dial, 14 years and up)

lee_this monstrous thingIn Mackenzi Lee’s This Monstrous Thing, set in an early-nineteenth-century alternate-universe Geneva, Alasdair Finch lives with a terrible secret: he’s responsible for the accident that killed his brother Oliver. He’s also responsible for having furtively dug up Oliver’s body and re-animated him entirely with clockwork parts. Now, two years later, an arrest warrant forces Alasdair to flee the city, leaving his monstrous brother behind. This retelling of Frankenstein, set in the year the novel came out—and with Mary Godwin (Shelley’s maiden name) as a character — has all the gothic atmosphere of Shelley’s classic horror story. (HarperCollins/Tegen, 13–16 years)

hunt_13 days of midnightSixteen-year-old Luke Manchett, protagonist of Leo Hunt’s 13 Days of Midnight, thinks he’s got it made when his estranged father, host of a popular ghost-hunting TV show, dies suddenly. Luke will inherit millions if he just signs the creepy goatskin contract proffered by lawyer Mr. Berkley. Luke does, and soon regrets his decision when it turns out he has also inherited the secret to his father’s success: necromantic power and a mutinous spirit Host. The frequent dark humor of Luke’s narration is balanced by moments of true suspense and satisfyingly complex relationships. (Candlewick, 13–16 years)

shelton_thirteen chairsTwelve strangers meet by candlelight to tell ghost stories in Dave Shelton’s Thirteen Chairs. A thirteenth — Jack, a boy who gate-crashes the gathering — listens and waits for his turn. As the tellers finish, they blow out their candles until only Jack is left…but by then he is certain that the stories are more real than anyone has let on. The ghost stories’ varied subjects and the different voices employed in their narration keep the pace moving along nicely. The common theme of the tales — that the dead seek retribution on their killers, or sometimes on bystanders who are just a little too curious — provides low-key chills. (Scholastic/Fickling, 11–14 years)

From the October 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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12. Review of Rhythm Ride

pinkney_rhythm rideRhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through 
the Motown Sound
by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Middle School   Roaring Brook   166 pp.
9/15   978-1-59643-973-3   $19.99   g

As related by an irrepressible narrator Pinkney names “the Groove,” this history of Motown Records manages not only to smartly place the company and its hit records in the context of (mostly) 1960s America but to have a great time doing so: “Put your hand up like you’re halting traffic. Really flick your wrist, kid. Because stopping in the name of love needs to be strong.” Pinkney traces the success of Motown from founder Berry Gordy’s initial drive and doggedness through early success among African American audiences to the breakout worldwide fame of acts such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and the Jackson 5. While the tone is generally peppy, the book gives due attention to the racism the company and its artists faced, and how Motown both reflected and contributed to — as in Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — the dramatic social changes of its heyday. “The Groove” (based, says Pinkney in an afterword, on the voice of a deejay cousin) is an energetic and amiable guide, but better at pumping enthusiasm than providing musical insight; there’s not much here on what made “the Motown sound” uniquely recognizable and distinct. That said, Pinkney provides an excellent discography that will lead young readers to the classic tracks, and, my goodness, they are many. Photographs throughout capture backstage moments as well as the full Motown glamour; appended material includes a timeline, thorough source notes and a reading list, and an index.

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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13. Reviews of selected books by Jonathan Stroud

stroud_amulet of samarkandThe Amulet of Samarkand: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book One
by Jonathan Stroud
Middle School      Miramax/Hyperion     462 pp.
9/03     0-7868-1859-X      $17.95

The magicians ruling the British empire in this anachronistic modern fantasy derive their powers from demons — marids, afrits, djinn, imps — who, though summoned to work the magicians’ wills, are always looking for a loophole through which to destroy them. Bartimaeus, a smart-mouthed bruiser of a djinni, called by a stripling magician to steal the Amulet of Samarkand, finds just such a loophole when he learns his master’s secret birth-name. Nathaniel, however, manages to regain the upper hand with a time-delayed spell: Bartimaeus must protect the apprentice magician long enough to get the spell removed or spend eternity in a tobacco tin. Through guile, teamwork, and dumb luck the ambitious but green kid and the “Spenser for Hire”-type djinni uncover and foil a coup attempt masterminded by  Simon Lovelace, the powerful and ruthless magician who is after them for stealing the Amulet. The pace never slows in this wisecracking adventure; chapters in Bartimaeus’s lively first person (with indulgent explanatory footnotes) alternate with third-person chapters on Nathaniel’s adolescent insecurities and desires. Stroud has created a compelling fantasy story in a well-realized world, but it is the  complementary characters of Bartimaeus and Nathaniel that will keep readers coming back for the rest of the projected trilogy. ANITA L. BURKAM

stroud_golem's eyeThe Golem’s Eye: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book Two
by Jonathan Stroud
Intermediate, Middle School     Miramax/Hyperion     556 pp.
9/04     0-7868-1860-3     17.95      g

This second book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy focuses more on the politics and society of the corrupt, magician-ruled London posited here and less on the personal stories of the orphan Nathaniel and the  djinni Bartimaeus, with a noticeable drop in the entertainment quotient. Oh, there’s action and intrigue aplenty — the now-adolescent Nathaniel, with Bartimaeus’s reluctant help, must overcome two seemingly unstoppable villains: a golem activated by an unknown traitor in the government and an insane, murderous afrit encased in Gladstone’s skeleton. As if that weren’t enough, Stroud adds a new major character to the mix — Kitty Jones, commoner and Resistance member. Kitty’s story as oppressed, brave rebel is compelling, and readers will find her admirable, balancing out the increasingly unlikable Nathaniel, who, as “John Mandrake,” power-hungry junior minister, is amoral and self-important. But pages spent with Kitty and Nathaniel/Mandrake mean fewer spent with Bartimaeus, and that’s a loss: the djinni’s dryly humorous, supercilious, often rude persona is one of the books’ strengths; also, it’s his voice that gives readers that insider’s view of the book’s highly inventive magical world. With most — but not all? — of the villains vanquished, Stroud brings Kitty and Bartimaeus together and spells out the similarity of their lots: both commoners and magical beings suffer at the hands of the all-powerful magicians. The potential for a Bartimaeus-Kitty partnership, plus one or two loose ends left untied, will leave readers eager for book three. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

stroud_ptolemy's gatestar2 Ptolemy’s Gate: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book Three
by Jonathan Stroud
Middle School, High School     Miramax/Hyperion     503 pp.
1/06     ISBN 0-7868-1861-1     $17.95

This closing installment is the best yet, as the fates of the djinni Bartimaeus, the magician John Mandrake (true name: Nathaniel), and the commoner Kitty Jones grow ever more tightly entwined. The  situation in Stroud’s alternate-universe London has gone from bad to worse, with an unpopular overseas war draining men and resources; the ruling magicians corrupt; and the populace increasingly desperate. Now in hiding, Kitty is secretly learning all she can about Ptolemy, an ancient-Egyptian scholar whom Bartimaeus served — and loved — who aspired to break the cycle of enslavement between spirits and humans. Meanwhile, Bartimaeus, his essence sadly diminished by two years’ continual service in the material world, seeks his release; Nathaniel, now a cynical top minister, needs him to investigate a plot to overthrow the government. When the attempted coup goes horribly wrong and powerful demons ravage the city, Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and Kitty find themselves fighting on the same side—and, in the case of Bartimaeus and Nathaniel, even in the same body. Stroud is a masterful storyteller, balancing touching sentiment with humor, explosive action scenes with philosophical musings on human nature. He ties up the loose ends from previous installments (the identity of the government traitor, etc.) early on, freeing the book from the usual duties of a wrap-up volume and allowing it considerable momentum and power. Skillfully intertwining the various plot strands, Stroud builds to a thrilling, inventive climax. The final scene manages to take the reader completely by surprise and yet seem, in retrospect, inevitable: a stunning end to a justly acclaimed trilogy. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

stroud_ring of solomonstar2 The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel
by Jonathan Stroud
Intermediate, Middle School     Disney-Hyperion     398 pp.
11/10     978-1-4231-2372-9     $17.99

Bartimaeus, the wisecracking djinni, returns in a prequel to his earlier adventures that began with The Amulet of Samarkand (rev. 11/03). Th is time he is bound into slavery to one of the evil magicians in King Solomon’s court. Meanwhile, the queen of Sheba refuses Solomon’s marriage proposal and, in retribution, the apparent tyrant threatens her kingdom with immediate destruction. Asmira, the queen’s most trusted guard, is sent to Jerusalem on a desperate errand: to assassinate Solomon and capture his legendary ring, the source of his enormous power. As the plot wends its way to the end, Asmira comes to realize that her blind obedience to the queen is just as confining as any form of slavery. Stroud has crafted a worthy companion to the Bartimaeus trilogy, keeping what worked (the snarky first-person voice, the labyrinthine plotting) but adding enough new elements (the world of the ancient Hebrews and the characters that populate it) to keep it as inventive and satisfying as the previous books. So rarely do humor and plot come together in such equally strong measures that we can only hope for more adventures. JONATHAN HUNT

stroud_heroes of the valleystar2 Heroes of the Valley
by Jonathan Stroud
Middle School, High School     Hyperion     483 pp.
1/09     978-1-4231-0966-2     $17.99     g

Will the descendants of the “heroes” — long memorialized in bloodthirsty legend — abandon their peaceable recent traditions to turn their ploughshares into swords? Will protagonist Halli, the short, stumpy younger son of Svein’s House, survive nonstop action to realize his true nature? To Stroud’s credit, he keeps readers guessing — about plot turns, character revelations, and the novel’s philosophical implications — through many a deftly choreographed conflict. Counterpointing the main narrative are legends of progenitor hero Svein, a Beowulfian figure known for harshly subduing his own people as well as the fearsome, feared (but not seen for generations), troll-like Trows. Despite the valley’s long-ago decision to eschew weaponry and abide by the decisions of peace-preaching women, it’s Svein who inspires Halli’s journey to avenge a murdered uncle. Halli’s actions, clever and well-meaning though they are, tend to have unintended consequences, causing commotion all over the valley and propelling the plot. Pursued, he takes refuge at Arne’s House, where Aud — equally intelligent and rebellious — hides him, becomes his valiant friend and bickering partner, and shares her family’s thought-provokingly different versions of the legends. She assumes a key role in a well-earned denouement, first during a siege involving some nicely inventive improvisation and again when the question of the Trows’ existence finally comes into play — with surprising results. Much fun. JOANNA RUDGE LONG

stroud_screaming staircaseThe Screaming Staircase [Lockwood & Co.]
by Jonathan Stroud
Intermediate, Middle School     Disney-Hyperion     374 pp.
9/13     978-1-4231-6491-3     $16.99     g

With a morbidly cheery tone and sure-footed establishment of characters and setting, Stroud (the Bartimaeus trilogy; Heroes of the Valley, rev. 1/09) kicks off a new series that is part procedural and part ghost story, with a healthy dash of caper thrown in for good measure. No one knows how the “Problem” began, but ghosts have become the world’s worst pest infestation, causing rampant property damage and personal injury, even death. Protagonist Lucy’s extreme psychic sensitivity (a talent found only in young people) is rivaled only by her dislike of obeying stupid orders, so she joins Lockwood & Co., a scrappy independent agency run by teenage operatives who scorn the usual requisite adult supervision. After a job goes awry, the agency is forced to take on a high-profile, high-paying haunting from a client who is, of course, not telling them everything. The setup is classic and is executed with panache. Lucy’s wry, practical voice counterpoints the suspenseful supernatural goings-on as she, agency owner Anthony  Lockwood, and dour associate George attempt to stiff-upper-lip their way through the ultimate haunted house. Tightly plotted and striking just the right balance between creepiness and hilarity, this rollicking series opener dashes to a fiery finish but leaves larger questions about the ghost Problem open for future
exploration. CLAIRE E. GROSS

stroud_whispering skullStroud, Jonathan The Whispering Skull
436 pp. Disney/Hyperion 2014. ISBN 978-1-4231-6492-0

(3) 4-6 Lockwood & Co. series. The ragtag juvenile ghost-hunter agency, Lockwood & Co., takes on its second big-ticket case, this one involving sinister artifacts with possible links to the genesis of Britain’s ghost “Problem.” Stroud unfolds an intricate plot that inches readers closer to the central supernatural mystery, offering a cozy, creepy tale that balances ghostly peril with hefty helpings of stiff-upper-lip snark. Glos. CLAIRE E. GROSS

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14. Review of Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

sheinkin_most dangerousstar2Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret 
History of the Vietnam War
by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School, High School   Roaring Brook   361 pp.
9/15   978-1-59643-952-8   $19.99   g

Without a wasted word or scene, and with the timing and prowess of a writer of thrillers, Sheinkin takes on a spectacularly complex story—and makes it comprehensible to teen readers: how Daniel Ellsberg evolved from a committed “cold warrior” to an antiwar activist, and why and how he leaked the Pentagon Papers—“seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years”—which led to the Watergate Scandal, the fall of the Nixon administration, and, finally, the end of the Vietnam War. From the very beginning of his account, Sheinkin demonstrates the human drama unfolding behind the scenes; the secrecy surrounding White House and Pentagon decisions; the disconnect between the public and private statements of our nation’s leaders. Throughout, readers will find themselves confronted by large, timely questions, all of which emerge organically from the book’s events: Can we trust our government? How do we know? How much secrecy is too much? The enormous amount of incorporated primary-source documentation (from interviews with Daniel Ellsberg himself to White House recordings) means not only that readers know much more than ordinary U.S. citizens did at the time but that every conversation and re-enacted scene feels immediate and compelling. Sheinkin (Bomb, rev. 11/12; The Port Chicago 50, rev. 3/14) has an unparalleled gift for synthesizing story and bringing American history to life; here, he’s outdone even himself. Meticulous scholarship includes a full thirty-
six pages of bibliography and source notes; judiciously placed archival photographs add to the sense of time and place.

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


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15. Review of Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (Flash Point/Roaring Brook)
While comprehensive in his synthesis of the political, historical, and scientific aspects of the creation of the first nuclear weapon, Sheinkin focuses his account with an extremely alluring angle: the spies. The book opens in 1950 with the confession of Harry Gold — but to what? And thus we flash back to Robert Oppenheimer in the dark 1930s, as he and readers are handed another question by the author: “But how was a theoretical physicist supposed to save the world?” Oppenheimer’s realization that an atomic bomb could be created to use against Nazi Germany is coupled with the knowledge that the Germans must be working from the same premise, and the Soviets are close behind. We periodically return to Gold’s ever-deepening betrayals as well as other acts of espionage, most excitingly the two stealth attacks on occupied Norway’s Vemork power plant, where the Germans were manufacturing heavy water to use in their own nuclear program. As he did in the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner The Notorious Benedict Arnold (rev. 1/11), Sheinkin here maintains the pace of a thriller without betraying history (source notes and an annotated bibliography are exemplary) or skipping over the science; photo galleries introducing each section help readers organize the events and players. Writing with journalistic immediacy, the author eschews editorializing up through the chilling last lines: “It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you’re in it.” Index.

From the November/December 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


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16. Review of The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the 
Fight for Civil Rights

Port ChicagoThe Port Chicago 50:
Disaster, Mutiny, and the
Fight for Civil Rights

by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School    Roaring Brook    190 pp.
1/14    978-1-59643-796-8    $19.99    g
e-book ed.  978-1-59643-983-2    $9.99

Sheinkin follows Bomb (rev. 11/12) with an account of another aspect of the Second World War, stemming from an incident that seems small in scope but whose ramifications would go on to profoundly change the armed forces and the freedom of African Americans to serve their country. The Port Chicago 50 was a group of navy recruits at Port Chicago in California doing one of the few service jobs available to black sailors at the beginning of the war: loading bombs and ammunition onto battleships. “All the officers standing on the pier and giving orders were white. All the sailors handling explosives were black.” When, as seems inevitable given the shoddy safety practices, there was an explosion that left more than three hundred dead, fifty men refused to go back to work, occasioning a trial for mutiny. Sheinkin focuses the events through the experience of Joe Small, who led the protest against the dangerous and unequal working conditions, but the narrative loses momentum as it tries to move between Small’s experience and its larger causes and effects. Still, this is an unusual entry point for the study of World War II and the nascent civil rights movement. Photographs are helpful, and documentation is thorough. Picture credits and index not seen.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


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Fight for Civil Rights appeared first on The Horn Book.

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Fight for Civil Rights as of 1/1/1900
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17. Picturing fantasy

Funny, action-packed, thought-provoking (and sometimes all of the above), these three graphic novels and one…well, what do you call Brian Selznick’s books? take readers on fantastic adventures.

selznick_marvelsBrian Selznick defined his own format with The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. He pushes the envelope even further in The Marvels. Black-and-white drawings (over four hundred pages’ worth) wordlessly tell the story of a storm, a shipwreck, and a rescue in a theater. In the text narrative that follows, a boy named Joseph runs away from boarding school to his uncle Albert’s house in London, a place that feels strangely from another time. Selznick is a unique and masterful storyteller, and his story-inside-a-story unfolds an emotional narrative that will leave readers marveling. (Scholastic, 10–12 years)

mccoola_baba yaga's assistantIn Marika McCoola’s Baba Yaga’s Assistant, Masha answers a help-wanted ad to become assistant to the mortar-and-pestle-riding, child-eating folkloric character. To win the position, she must creatively accomplish challenges set forth by Baba Yaga. Masha draws on lessons learned through her grandmother’s stories and her own inherited magical ability, uncovering her family’s complex connection to the witch along the way. Illustrator Emily Carroll‘s vividly colored digital art establishes setting and tone. Comprised of short chapters, this graphic novel shines in its pacing, harmony of image and text, and use of flashbacks to advance plot. (Candlewick, 12–14 years)

watson_princess decomposia and count spatulaWith her hypochondriac father taken to his bed, capable Princess Decomposia of the Underworld — star of Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula — is running the show…and running herself ragged. A baker named Count Spatula joins the castle staff, and his nourishing food and supportive demeanor help the princess get through her hectic days. When the king has him fired, the princess must decide whether to stand up to her father. Andi Watson’s unique and funny graphic novelpopulated by friendly creatures of the night — has a decidedly supernatural twist, but at its core is a relatable tale of self-actualization and blossoming romance. (Roaring Brook/First Second, 12–14 years)

stevenson_nimonaBallister Blackheart — ex-knight and current supervillain — is focused on the destruction of the Institute of Law Enforcement and Heroics. He also wouldn’t mind getting even with Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, a knight-school acquaintance who shot off Blackheart’s right arm. Just as Blackheart’s plans are coming to fruition, plucky young shapeshifter Nimona shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his new sidekick. Set in a medieval-type kingdom mixed with futuristic science, Noelle Stevenson’s webcomic-turned-graphic-novel Nimona entertainingly tweaks both the science-fiction and fantasy genres. Nimona herself is beautifully flawed and refreshingly unstereotypical. (HarperTeen, 11–15 years)

From the August 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.


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18. This is my life

Memoirs capture moments in time, those events that are formative or emblematic or otherwise meaningful for their subjects. Surprising, intimate, cathartic — Brown Girl Dreaming, El Deafo, Becoming Maria (see Randy Ribay’s interview with Sonia Manzano), the new books below, and these recommended by the Horn Book Guide, for example — memoirs offer glimpses into the larger picture of a life.

gantos_trouble in meFourteen-year-old Jack Gantos was a “drifty kid who was lost at sea…easily led off course.” Bored with his own life, he tried to be somebody else and fell into the orbit of juvenile delinquent neighbor Gary Pagoda. In The Trouble in Me, Gantos effectively narrates his own story, reviewing portions of his life to identify what led him to abandon his “better self” in favor of later becoming a drug smuggler who ended up in a federal penitentiary. As explained in the afterword, this volume acts as a preface to Hole in My Life, and readers who read both will experience the full arc of Jack’s wild behavior, severe consequences, and, ultimately, redemption. (Farrar, 14 years and up)

jimenez_taking holdIn Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University — the fourth volume of Francisco Jiménez’s memoir series (starting with The Circuit) — the author delivers a moving account of his graduate school years at Columbia University during the turbulent 1960s, paying particular attention to those friends and mentors who helped shape his intellectual pursuits and academic career path. He also relates his courtship and marriage to his college sweetheart, Laura, and the birth of their two children. Throughout it all, Jiménez never forgets his beginnings as the child of migrant farm workers, frequently alluding to and briefly recapitulating events from earlier volumes. His ingratiating storytelling—who else could make these years of adulthood such a compelling read for teens?—makes us root for him to succeed. (Houghton, 14 years and up)

engle_enchanted airAuthor and poet Margarita Engle explores her own past in Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir, a collection of emotionally rich memory poems. The daughter of a Don Quixote–obsessed American artist of Ukrainian Jewish descent and a beautiful homesick Cuban émigrée, Engle describes joyful visits to her mother’s homeland as a child. She then vividly contrasts the smoggy air of sprawling Los Angeles with the enchanted air of that small, magical-seeming island, and at first going between the two cultures is fairly seamless. But then there’s the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and suddenly all is different. Engle’s personal reverie gives young readers an intimate view of a complicated time and life. (Atheneum, 12–16 years)

From the August 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.


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19. Fearless females

From an aspiring journalist to an up-and-coming roller derby grrl, the determined and curious female protagonists of these intermediate and middle-school books are ready to take on the world.

springstubb_moonpenny islandIn Tricia Springstubb’s Moonpenny Island, the titular tiny Ohio vacation spot is lousy with fossils — specifically, of trilobites from the Cambrian period. Sixth-grade townie Flor becomes fascinated with trilobites’ eyes after learning they were “among the very first creatures” to develop them. Flor herself is, in some ways, as sightless as early trilobites, for she misses much of what’s going on in her family and in her interconnected island community. Flor’s growing awareness of those around her results in a unique protagonist who, like a fossil, creates an imprint that remains after her story is finished. (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, 9–12 years)

birdsall_penderwicks in springJeanne Birdsall‘s fourth Penderwicks book, The Penderwicks in Spring, focuses on Batty, now ten and the “senior member of the younger Penderwick siblings.” To raise money for singing lessons, she starts a neighborhood odd-jobs business. There’s a lot of melancholy here: dog-walking sadly reminds Batty of her dear departed Hound, and she suffers benign neglect from one big sister (Rosalind is temporarily boy-crazy) and hurtful words from another. On the plus side, stepbrother Ben (seven) and half-sister Lydia (two), in their cheering-up efforts, emerge as formidable Penderwicks themselves, and Batty rewardingly finds her voice at her climactic Grand Eleventh Birthday Concert. (Knopf, 9–12 years)

vaught_footer davis probably is crazyAt the start of Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy by Susan Vaught, eleven-year-old Footer Davis’s mother, who has bipolar disorder, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital after shooting off an elephant rifle in their backyard. To distract herself from her mother’s worsening condition, budding journalist Footer (with aspiring-detective best friend Peavine) investigates a dramatic unsolved local crime. Footer’s lively narrative voice and irreverent sense of humor add levity to the heavy subject matter. Like its heroine, the book itself is compelling, offbeat, and fearless. (Simon/Wiseman, 9–12 years)

jamieson_roller girlWhen her best friend Nicole starts harping on about ballet, fashion, and dating, twelve-year-old Astrid, star of Victoria Jamieson’s graphic novel Roller Girl, is left behind (read: not interested). She’s behind on the roller derby track, too, where she has signed up for summer boot camp even though she can’t skate five seconds without disaster. Astrid faces the challenges of derby as well as tweendom, and when the time comes for her big end-of-summer bout, “Asteroid” is brimming with confidence and ready to roll. Readers will identify with Astrid’s journey to find her authentic self. Have this book at the ready for Telgemeier fans racing to find something new. (Dial, 9–12 years)

From the April 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.


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20. Guess who came to dinner: James Patterson in Australia

There is a media and reader buzz about James Patterson, the world’s biggest selling author, who is in Australia at the moment. It was announced on Tuesday that Patterson is giving grants of $500 to $5000 to independent bookshops in Australia and New Zealand, to a total of $100,000. This is an extremely generous gift […]

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21. Screaming at the Ump, by Audrey Vernick | Book Review

Screaming at the Ump will appeal to both boys and girls who are interested in sports (especially baseball), and journalism, coping with the transition to middle school, or dealing with family conflicts.

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22. Review of March: Book Two

lewis_march bk 2star2 March: Book Two
by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin; illus. by Nate Powell
Middle School, High School   Top Shelf Productions   192 pp.
1/15   978-1-60309-400-9   $19.95   g

Lewis and Aydin begin this second volume of the graphic memoir trilogy in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2009 (President Obama’s first inauguration), then they move back in time to 1960 to pick up where March: Book One (rev. 1/14) left off. Dramatic descriptions and vivid black-and-white illustrations of SNCC’s direct action campaigns in Nashville (sit-ins at fast-food restaurants and cafeterias, “stand-ins” at a segregated movie theater) are followed by accounts of the Freedom Rides into the “heart of the beast” in the Deep South, and on through the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, where Lewis spoke alongside Dr. King. (Back matter includes the original draft of Lewis’s speech, a more fiery, radical version of the speech he delivered, a debate about which took place up to the moment he stepped onstage.) Since this is Lewis’s personal story, the account has the authority of a passionate participant, and the pacing ramps up tension and historical import. Events and personalities aren’t romanticized in the text or the illustrations, which themselves don’t flinch from violence; in addition to exploring the dream that drove the civil rights movement, the story also portrays its divisions. Flash-forwards to Barack Obama’s inauguration appear judiciously throughout, an effective reminder to readers about the effects of the movement. Among the many excellent volumes available on the subject of civil rights this is a standout, the graphic format a perfect vehicle for delivering the one-two punch of powerful words and images.

From the May/June 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


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23. Lives and times

The settings of these narrative nonfiction titles span decades and geography — from WWII Denmark to contemporary Malawi — but the issues they explore are incredibly timely.

kamkwamba_boy who harnessed the windWhen heavy rains, then drought, devastated his country of Malawi and the corrupt government didn’t respond, young William Kamkwamba used his scientific ingenuity to help people in need. His windmill made from “bottle-cap washers, rusted tractor parts, and [an] old bicycle frame” was a success; soon William dreamed of conquering darkness, pumping water to the villages, and fighting hunger. Cowritten with Bryan Mealer, Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition (illustrated by Anna Hymas) is inspiring — a well-told true tale of one young man’s passion for science making his world better. (Dial, 9–12 years)

The Boys Who Challenged HitlerPhillip Hoose introduces readers to a little-known resistance movement in The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club. When Hitler invaded Denmark, teenaged Knud Pedersen (with his brother Jens and some mates) decided that “If the adults would not act, we would.” First using civil disobedience then employing increasingly dangerous acts of sabotage against the country’s Nazi occupiers, the group inspired widespread Danish revolt. Hoose brilliantly weaves Pederson’s own words into the larger narrative of wartime Denmark, showing how the astonishing bravery of a few ordinary Danish teens started something extraordinary. A 2015 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Book and an outstanding addition to the WWII canon. (Farrar, 11–15 years)

lewis_march bk 2Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s March: Book Two picks up where the previous volume left off in relating Lewis’s personal experiences of the civil rights movement. Dramatic descriptions, along with Nate Powell’s vivid black-and-white illustrations, relate direct action campaigns in Nashville (sit-ins at fast-food restaurants and cafeterias, “stand-ins” at a segregated movie theater), Freedom Rides into the “heart of the beast” in the Deep South, and the 1963 March on Washington, where Lewis spoke alongside Dr. King. Among the many excellent volumes available on the subject of civil rights this is a standout, the graphic format a perfect vehicle for delivering the one-two punch of powerful words and images. (Top Shelf Productions, 11–15 years)

blumenthal_tommyIn Tommy: The Gun That Changed America, Karen Blumenthal traces the history of the Thompson submachine gun (a.k.a. the Tommy gun) and its times. After the Spanish-American War, Army officer John Thompson believed that America needed a lightweight, automatic rifle. The Army did not share his opinion, so Thompson left the service and developed his own weapon, completed with superior bad timing on Armistice Day in 1918. Without a ready military market, the Tommy gun wound up in the hands of crooks and bootleggers. Blumenthal shows the complexity of gun culture then and now with thorough research and impeccable documentation. (Roaring Brook, 11–15 years)

From the June 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.


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24. Listen, laugh, and learn

Some stories can be at their funniest — and most poignant — when read aloud. The following audiobooks, recommended for intermediate and middle-school listeners, offer lots of laughs and lots to learn.

perkins_nuts to you audioLynne Rae Perkins’s Nuts to You tells the wacky story of a trio of industrious young squirrels saving their respective colonies from the impending danger of human deforestation. What’s lost in the absence of Perkins’s quirky, digressive illustrations is made up for in Jessica Almasy’s all-in, over-the-top performance. Making the most of the sensory descriptions, comical dialogue, and tangled action, she maximizes this classic-feeling animal fantasy’s considerable entertainments and adds weight to the deeper environmental message. (Recorded Books, 8–11 years)

graff_absolutely almost audioAlbie, star of Lisa Graff’s Absolutely Almost, is not having a good fifth-grade year at his new school. His best friend from his old school, Erlan, is distracted by being on reality TV, and Betsy, his only real new friend, isn’t speaking to him. But there are spots of brightness, including Albie’s punning math club teacher, his free-spirited babysitter Calista, and, of course, doughnuts. Noah Galvin’s narration is engaging and earnest, reflecting Albie’s naiveté and his heart in equal measure. The quick pace pulls readers along to the hopeful, satisfying conclusion. (Recorded Books, 8–11 years)

gantos_key that swallowed joey pigza audioWith his depressed mother in the hospital and his ne’er-do-well father out of the picture — but lurking — Joey becomes “man of the house.” The unexpected arrival of Olivia, “the meanest blind girl in the world,” helps lessen the load, but Joey must still prove himself to himself in order to move beyond his wired-kid past. Narrated by author Jack Gantos, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza is the fifth (and final) Joey Pigza story, and there’s nuance and emotion at every turn. It’s a satisfying sendoff for a uniquely imperfect kid in a very imperfect family. (Listening Library, 9–12 years)

holm_fourteenth goldfish audiobookOn its surface, The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm delights as a comic tale of a middle-school girl coming to terms with her grandfather’s fountain-of-youth breakthrough, which has turned him into a teenager. As the plot bounces along, however, subtle character development and substantial inquiry add layers of meaning, posing important questions about bioethics and family responsibility. Georgette Perna’s frothy narration enhances the novel’s lighter elements, keeping the pace brisk and humorously reflecting the adolescent cadence of the dialogue; when the novel’s deeper revelations surface, they are that much more surprising and reverberant. (Listening Library, 10–14 years)

From the June 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.


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25. The Bedsby Tales app review

bedsby menuTales from the Crypt fans who’ve been dying to introduce the next generation to episodic horror will be all over The Bedsby Tales (Jacob Duane Johnson, March 2015), a series of short stories for middle graders with some interactive elements. “Episode 1: Thoughts of Unknown” begins with a dubious welcome from a shadowy-creature storyteller in a creepy lair (“Well hello there my little friend, I’ve been expecting you. Run into any, problems along the way?” *menacing chuckle*).

The story in rhyme begins: “There’s something creepy about a house in the night. / Mysteries of emptiness and absence of light.” The narrator, Kevan Brighting, a 2014 BAFTA nominee for games performer, does his best Vincent Price (and with those rhymes it’s difficult not to think of “Thriller,” but not in a bad way). There are good sound effects, too: creaky floorboards, rattling wind, ticking clocks, and tinkly, haunting music.

The visuals are shadowy mostly black-and-white cartoon illustrations, with a shifting cinematic perspective; moving down a long corridor or up a windy staircase, for example, or zooming down from the ceiling and toward a small key hole in a door. When you finally reach the destination — a little boy’s room — there’s a pause in the narration and a wordless scene plays out, complete with scary monster (and it is pretty scary; then there’s another one, too, under the bed, which is even scarier). The story picks back up and moves swiftly to its everything’s-ok-fornow denouement. Then we’re back to our crypt-master who sets the stage for next time.

bedsby monster

In the interactive mode (you can also set it to auto play), listeners are occasionally stopped to perform tasks inside the creepy house: prying up floorboards to unearth a key; pulling portraits off the wall to find a clock’s hand; using that hand to set the time at midnight (that one’s the most fun); using the key to enter the boy’s room. It works well, pacing-wise, and lets kids play a somewhat active role (though seasoned app or e-book users may not find enough interactive bells and whistles).

There are six stories coming in the current “season” (the first episode is free). They’re definitely creepy, but not too terrifying. Good for young horror fans who can take the tingles or slightly older ones who don’t like blood and gore.

Available for iPad (requires iOS 6.0 or later); free for the introductory story. Recommended for intermediate and middle-school users.


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